Having released so many of the best 70s albums that he effectively shaped the entire decade, all eyes were on David Bowie to remain just as dominant a creative force throughout the 80s. When his first single of 1980 arrived as an unlikely cover of Alabama Song, a 1920s show tune penned by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, that only deepened the intrigue: what would a true Bowie original sound like in this new era? When it finally emerged, on 8 August 1980, Ashes To Ashes lit up the UK chart; Bowie’s fastest-selling single to date, it became his second homeland No.1. It was also a postmodern art-rock classic that saw him draw a line under all that had gone before as he entered yet another new phase of his career.
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“It was a mind bender; your brain tells you this isn’t supposed to work”
Having brought the “Berlin Trilogy” to a close with the previous year’s Lodger album, Bowie returned to the studios where he’d finished that work off, The Record Plant, in New York City, to begin recording its follow-up, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), in February 1980. Again with producer Tony Visconti at the desk, and his longtime rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, Bowie, with a clutch of extra cohorts, began to fashion a batch of songs which Visconti felt could be “a kind of Sgt Pepper”. Among these was a track given the working title People Are Turning Into Gold, whose off-kilter rhythm and innovative studio tricks mined a particularly rich seam of creativity. By the end of April, after moving to Visconti’s Good Earth Studios, in London, the song would be finished as Ashes To Ashes.
Writing about the Ashes To Ashes sessions for the A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) box set, Visconti explained why the tune was so attention-grabbing from the off. “The intro and interlude chord changes… is based on three bars of three chords, cycled five times,” he said. “David’s idea was to play a repeating four-bar melody over it played on piano. It was a mind bender; your brain tells you this isn’t supposed to work.
“Music is mathematics,” the producer added, “and David was often using odd bar cycles in his songs. To him this was familiar ground.”